Why Build, Measure, Learn – isn’t just throwing things against the wall to see if they work – the Minimal Viable Product

I am always surprised when critics complain that the Lean Startup’s Build, Measure, Learn approach is nothing more than “throwing incomplete products out of the building to see if they work.”

Unfortunately the Build, Measure, Learn diagram is the cause of that confusion. At first glance it seems like a fire-ready-aim process.

It’s time to update Build, Measure, Learn to what we now know is the best way to build Lean startups.

Here’s how.

Build, Measure, Learn sounds pretty simple. Build a product, get it into the real world, measure customers’ reactions and behaviors, learn from this, and use what you’ve learned to build something better. Repeat, learning whether to iterate, pivot or restart until you have something that customers love.build measure learn

Waterfall Development
While it sounds simple, the Build Measure Learn approach to product development is a radical improvement over the traditional Waterfall model used throughout the 20th century to build and ship products. Back then, an entrepreneur used a serial product development process that proceeded step-by-step with little if any customer feedback. Founders assumed they understood customer problems/needs, wrote engineering requirements documents, designed the product, implemented/built the hardware/software, verified that it worked by testing it, and then introduced the product to customers in a formal coming out called first customer ship.

Waterfall Development was all about execution of the requirements document. While early versions of the product were shared with customers in Alpha and Beta Testing, the goal of early customer access to the product was to uncover bugs not to provide feedback on features or usability. Only after shipping and attempting to sell the product would a startup hear any substantive feedback from customers. And too often, after months or even years of development, entrepreneurs learned the hard way that customers were not buying their product because they did not need or want most of its features.

It often took companies three tries to get products right. Version 1 was built without customer feedback, and before version 1 was complete work had already started on version 2 so it took till version 3 before the customer was really heard (e.g. Microsoft Windows 3.0)

Best practices in software development started to move to agile development in the early 2000’s. This methodology improved on waterfall by building software iteratively and involving the customer. But it lacked a framework for testing all commercialization hypotheses outside of the building. With Agile you could end up satisfying every feature a customer asked for and still go out of business.

Then came the Build-Measure-learn focus of the Lean Startup.

The goal of Build-Measure-Learn is not to build a final product to ship or even to build a prototype of a product, but to maximize learning through incremental and iterative engineering. (Learning could be about product features, customer needs, the right pricing and distribution channel, etc.) The “build” step refers to building a minimal viable product (an MVP.) It’s critical to understand that an MVP is not the product with fewer features. Rather it is the simplest thing that you can show to customers to get the most learning at that point in time. build measure learnEarly on in a startup, an MVP could simply be a PowerPoint slide, wireframe, clay model, sample data set, etc. Each time you build an MVP you also define what you are trying to test/measure. Later, as more is learned, the MVP’s go from low-fidelity to higher fidelity, but the goal continues to be to maximize learning not to build a beta/fully featured prototype of the product.

A major improvement over Waterfall development, Build Measure Learn lets startups be fast, agile and efficient.

The three-circle diagram of Build Measure Learn is good approximation of the process. Unfortunately, using the word “build” first often confuses people. The diagram does seem to imply build stuff and throw it out of the building. A more detailed version of the Build Measure Learn diagram helps to clarify the meaning by adding three more elements: Ideas-Build-Code-Measure-Data-Learn.

ideas build code measureThe five-part version of the Build Measure Learn diagram helps us see that the real intent of building is to test “ideas” – not just to build blindly without an objective. The circle labeled “code” could easily be labeled “build hardware” or “build artificial genome.” The circle labeled “data” indicates that after we measure our experiments we’ll use the data to further refine our learning. And the new learning will influence our next ideas. So we can see that the goal of Build-Measure-Learn isn’t just to build things, the goal is to build things to validate or invalidate the initial idea.

The focus on testing specific ideas counters the concern that build-measure-learn is just throwing things against the wall and see if they work.

But it’s still not good enough. We can now do better.

Start With Hypotheses
What Build-Measure-Learn misses is that new ventures (both startups and new ideas in existing companies) don’t start with “ideas”, they start with hypotheses (a fancy word for guesses.) It’s important to understand that the words “idea ” and “hypotheses” mean two very different things. For most innovators the word “idea” conjures up an insight that immediately requires a plan to bring it to fruition. In contrast, a hypothesis means we have an educated guess that requires experimentation and data to validate or invalidate.

These hypotheses span the gamut from who’s the customer(s), to what’s the value proposition (product/service features), pricing, distribution channel, and demand creation (customer acquisition, activation, retention, etc.)

That the Lean Startup begins with acknowledging that your idea is simply a series of untested hypotheses is a big idea. It’s a really big idea because what you build needs to match the hypothesis you want to test.

The minimum viable product you’ll need to build to find the right customers is different from the minimum viable product you need for testing pricing, which is different from an MVP you would build to test specific product features. And all of these hypotheses (and minimal viable products) change over time as you learn more. So instead of Build-Measure-Learn, the diagram for building minimal viable products in a Lean Startup looks like Hypotheses – Experiments – Tests – Insights.hypotheses experiment

Generating Hypotheses
Using this new Hypotheses – Experiments – Tests – Insights diagram the question then becomes, “What hypotheses should I test?” Luckily Alexander Osterwalder’s business model canvas presents a visual overview of the nine components of a business on one page. They are:

  • value proposition, product/service the company offers (along with its benefits to customers)
  • customer segments, such as users and payers or moms or teens
  • distribution channels to reach customers and offer them the value proposition
  • customer relationships to create demand
  • revenue streams generated by the value proposition(s)
  • activities necessary to implement the business model
  • resources needed to make the activities possible
  • partners 3rd parties needed to make the activities possible
  • cost structure resulting from the business model

Business Model Canvas

And it brings us to the definition of a startup: A startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.

Testing Hypotheses
And once these hypotheses fill the Business Model Canvas, how does an entrepreneur go about testing them? If you’re a scientist the answer is easy: you run experiments. The same is true in a Lean Startup. (The National Science Foundation described the Lean LaunchPad class as the scientific method for entrepreneurship.)

The Customer Development process is a simple methodology for taking new venture hypotheses and getting out of the building to test them. Customer discovery captures the founders’ vision and turns it into a series of business model hypotheses. Then it develops a series of experiments to test customer reactions to those hypotheses and turn them into facts. The experiments can be a series of questions you ask customers but most often a minimal viable product to help potential customers understand your solution accompanies the questions.

So another big idea here is startups are not building minimal viable products to build a prototype. They are building minimal viable products to learn the most they can.

HBR Reprint

Finally, the goal of designing these experiments and minimal viable products is not to get data. The data is not the endpoint. Anyone can collect data. Focus groups collect data. This is not a focus group. The goal is to get insight. The entire point of getting out of the building is to inform the founder’s vision. The insight may come from analyzing customer responses, but it also may come from ignoring the data or realizing that what you are describing is a new, disruptive market that doesn’t exist, and that you need to change your experiments from measuring specifics to inventing the future.

Lessons Learned

  • Build, Measure, Learn is a great improvement over Waterfall product development and provided the framework to truly join the customer to agile development
  • However, emphasizing “Build” or “Ideas” as the first step misses the key insight about a Lean Startup – you are starting with hypotheses to be tested and are searching for repeatable and scalable business model
  • Hypotheses, Experiments, Test, Insights better represents the Lean startup process:
    • Use the Business Model Canvas to frame hypotheses, Customer Development to get out of the building to test hypotheses, and Agile Engineering to build the product iteratively and incrementally

How One Startup Figured Out What Could Really Help Deaf People

Thibault Duchemin and his team applied for our Lean LaunchPad class at UC Berkeley in 2014. We accepted them because it was clear Thibault was driven to solve a very personal problem – he grew up in a Deaf family, the only one who could hear. His team project was to provide automated aids for the hearing impaired.

Here’s his story.


Lean LaunchPad: A Year After
A month ago, Jason, one of my founder friends, shut down his startup. It failed because he forgot the No. 1 rule every founder hears over and over: Nobody wants your product until you prove it.

How come so many founders still wake up to this horrible truth, after months or years of hard work?

Listening to Jason’s story made me realize how critical our experience with the Lean LaunchPad has been in our entrepreneurial journey at Transcense. And why now, despite the time and effort involved, we do not hesitate getting out of our office to meet users.

Pre-Lean LaunchPad – Giving a Voice to the Deaf
Everything started when I applied to the Lean LaunchPad class pitching a big, crazy idea to solve a personal problem of mine. I grew up the only hearing person in a Deaf family. My sister’s dream has always been to become a lawyer, but closing statements and client meetings are impossible situations for her without the help of unaffordable interpreters.


At Berkeley I decided to build smart gloves to translate sign language. With my co-founder Pieter, I built a first basic prototype, which got us a prize and got the team started. It looked like one of the geeky science projects you find in Berkeley halls. Glove nerds we became.started with a glove

That’s also when we met Steve Blank.

More than the signing glove, he was interested by our passion for the problem.

Steve knew that first ideas rarely hit home for users, so to enter the Lean LaunchPad, we had to give in. “We’re not married to the glove,” we said, allowing us to accept the possibility of a pivot. There was no going back.

Lean LaunchPad – Stumbling Upon an Immense Need
Customer Development for us meant a lot of hard-won learnings. Our entire team took a fast-paced American Sign Language course to be able to really connect with our potential users. We spent six weekly hours in complete silence, discovering the subtleties of gestures and expressions. Since I’m French, I spoke for a while a bizarre Franglish in signs. It turned out to be out an excellent icebreaker in our interviews.

After 61 in-person discussions, and hundreds of bike rides across the Bay Area to meet and talk/sign/write for hours with our potential users, we were sure that the community of Deaf people cheered for our signing glove idea and prototype.

But we detected a common frustration when discussing their existing relationships with their hearing coworkers or friends, where the glove couldn’t help at all. This one thing kept coming back across all our interviews, over and over. A frustration so obvious, yet so deeply unresolved that when it became really apparent the day we met Alma, it blew our minds away and made us pivot.

Alma didn’t speak sign language, and relied on her residual hearing, being able to read lips very well in face-to-face situations. But in her own family, at the dinner table, she would read a book while everybody else was conversing.make do


Because following the conversation when multiple people were talking around her was impossible. She avoided the problem the best way she could, by doing something else, or being somewhere else.

We learned that existing solutions are not affordable enough to access in easy, informal social and professional conversational situations. For 400M people in the world with disabling hearing loss, this is an ongoing frustration, encountered every day. This was a big opportunity.

Halfway through the Lean LaunchPad, it was time for a major pivot. We dropped the signing glove.

And pivoted to a mobile application that transcribes group conversations using speech-recognition technologies. The app quickly connects all the smartphones in a group, enabling the app to translate and display who said what around the user (while uniquely identifying each speaker) in less than a second. With 24/7 autonomy, it allowed our deaf/hard-of-hearing user to understand and participate in any group situation, effortlessly.

The rest of the 123 total interviews helped us figure out a working business model. By the time we graduated from the Lean LaunchPad class, we had found the root cause of the initial problem we had set out to tackle, and even better, a potential solution for it.a device to understand themPost-Lean LaunchPad – Making Something People Need
Now it was time to build the company. Our team spent our whole summer in Berkeley iterating, testing and running experiments to validate and refine our concept before spending any of our precious resources. For example, we built a “mock-up meeting”, where 5 friends in the meeting called 5 more friends of ours who each transcribed the call to be interfaced to a Deaf tester in the room. Despite the low fidelity of this minimal viable product, some of our testers thought it was a real technology.

a device to understand them2Next, we joined the Boost.vc startup accelerator, where we spent 16 hours a day in a basement to finish the first working version of our app. By now we believed we had tested our hypotheses and wanted to validate whether there was a market. So we launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. We raised $30,000 in less than 6 days, almost doubling our goal. The endless emails we received describing the exact need we had uncovered were the powerful validation of the customer development approach.

Now – Bridging the Communication Barrier
Skinner, our third cofounder, joined because of our persistence in talking to our users. The captioner (live-transcriber) we used in demoing to potential deaf customers was so excited about our product that she introduced us to Skinner, a brilliant mobile developer, who is profoundly deaf.

In the early days of Transcense, when we took Skinner to an event, he would grab a drink and go to an isolated space to check his phone. Today, in small groups, he can use the app to communicate with others. At lunch, during our internal meetings, we pull out our phones and stay connected, transcending the silence barrier. What was just my personal story now became a team story while we slowly dissolved the communication barriers within the team.


Every day, these simple moments justify our long hours of work.

But what’s ahead of us is even more exciting.

After a 3-months of beta testing with our community, we’ve seen the same pattern with our early users – we’ve changed their lives, enabling opportunities that had been closed to them so far. Incredibly high usage and impressive retention prove that we are on the right track.

So what now?

In a relentless build-measure-learn cycle, we’re staying focused on the next steps.

We are bridging the deaf/hearing communication gap, an immense mission that will take everyone’s participation to make it happen.

Lessons Learned

  • Dig deep into your customer psychology and test lo-fidelity minimum viable products, before trying to build anything
  • Track the need rather than the desire: solving somebody’s needs will help you much more
  • Eat your own dog food

I’m on the Air – On Sirius XM Channel 111

Starting this Monday, March 9th 4-6pm Pacific Time I’ll be on the radio hosting the Bay Area Ventures program on Sirius XM radio Channel 111 – the Wharton Business Radio Channel.Untitled

Over this program I’ll be talking to entrepreneurs, financial experts and academic leaders in the tech and biotech industries. And if the past is prologue I guarantee you that this will be radio worth listening to.

On our first show, Monday March 9th 4-6pm Pacific Time join me, as I chat with Alexander Osterwalder – inventor of the Business Model Canvas, and Oren Jacob, ex-CTO of Pixar and now CEO of ToyTalk on Sirius XM Radio Channel 111.

Oren Jacob - CEO ToyTalk

Oren Jacob – CEO ToyTalk

Alex Osterwalder - Business Models

Alex Osterwalder – Business Models

On Monday’s show we’ll be talking about a range of entrepreneurship topics: what’s a Business Model Canvas, how to build startups efficiently, the 9 deadly sins of a startup, the life of a startup CEO, how large companies can innovate at startup speeds. But it won’t just be us talking; we’ll be taking your questions live and on the air by phone, email or Twitter.

On April 27th, on my next program, my guest will be Eric Ries the author of the Lean Startup. Future guests include Marc Pincus, founder of Zynga, and other interesting founders and investors.

Is there anyone you’d like to hear on the air on future shows? Any specific topics you’d like discussed? Leave me a comment.

Mark your calendar for 4-6pm Pacific Time on Sirius XM Radio Channel 111:

  • March 9th
  • April 27th
  • May 11th
  • June 29th
  • July 13th
  • Aug 24th in NY

Blowing up the Business Plan at U.C. Berkeley Haas Business School

During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, science and engineering at both Stanford and U.C. Berkeley were heavily funded to develop Cold War weapon systems. Stanford’s focus was Electronic Intelligence and those advanced microwave components and systems were useful in a variety of weapons systems. Starting in the 1950’s, Stanford’s engineering department became “outward facing” and developed a culture of spinouts and active faculty support and participation in the first wave of Silicon Valley startups.

At the same time Berkeley was also developing Cold War weapons systems. However its focus was nuclear weapons – not something you wanted to be spinning out. nuclearSo Berkeley started a half century history of “inward facing innovation” focused on the Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons lab. (See the presentation here.)

Given its inward focus, Berkeley has always been the neglected sibling in Silicon Valley entrepreneurship. That has changed in the last few years.

Today the U.C. Berkeley Haas Business School is a leader in entrepreneurship education. It has replaced how to write a business plan with hands-on Lean Startup methods. It’s teaching the LaunchPad® and the I-Corps for the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, as well as corporate entrepreneurship courses.haas logo

Here’s the story from Andre Marquis, Executive Director of Berkeley’s Lester Center for Entrepreneurship.


When I came to U.C. Berkeley in 2010 to run the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship in the Haas School of Business we were teaching entrepreneurship the same way as when I was a student back in 1995. Our core MBA class used the seminal textbook New Venture Creation by Jeffrey Timmons of Babson College that was first published in 1977. The final deliverable for that class was a 30-page business plan. We had multiple business plan competitions. As I looked around at other schools, I saw pretty much the same landscape – business plan classes, business plan competitions and loosely coupled accelerators that focused primarily on mentoring.

Over my career as a serial entrepreneur I observed that since the late 1990s, no early-stage Silicon Valley investor had used business plans to screen investments. Even those who asked for them never read them. Traction and evidence from customers were what investors were looking for – even in “slow” sectors like healthcare and energy. There had been tectonic shifts in the startup world, but our business school curriculum had barely moved.

There was a big gap in our educational paradigm. To create great entrepreneurs, we had to give our students the experience of navigating the chaos and uncertainty of running a lean startup while providing the same kind of rigorous framework the business plan did in its day. The advantage of following New Venture Creation is that it had a deep pedagogical infrastructure that students took away after they left school. The disadvantage is that its methodology was based on the old waterfall model of product development and not the agile and lean methods that startups use today.

As I began my search to increase the relevance of our entrepreneurship curriculum with the same rigor as Timmons and New Venture Creation, I found the answer right here at Berkeley, in Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad class.

(Our founding Executive Director Jerry Engel, recently retired to become dean of faculty for the National Science Foundation I-Corps, had a tradition of incorporating leading practioners, like Steve. These ‘pracademics’ proved to be some of the biggest innovators in entrepreneurship education.)

Seeing Is Believing
The Lean LaunchPad class was completely different from a traditional entrepreneurship class. It taught lean theory (business model design, customer development and agile engineering) and practice.

Every week, each student team stood in front of the class and presented their business model hypotheses, what they had learned from talking to customers, demo’d their minimal viable products and had to explain what they were going to do next. Steve and the venture capitalists at the back of the room relentlessly peppered them with questions and pushed them to get out of the building and call on the real decision-makers instead of talking to people they already knew. Some teams stepped down from the podium proud that they had made real progress that week while others were chastised because they stuck to their comfort zone, were not doing the tough work required by entrepreneurs and on the road to failure.

I realized this class was teaching students exactly what it felt like to be an entrepreneur! Great entrepreneurs are on a search for the truth, no matter how wrong their initial conception is. Being an entrepreneur is about starting out with no idea whether you are working on the next big thing or something no one wants and certainly no one will pay for. It’s struggling to find the right path forward through chaos and uncertainty. Killing bad ideas quickly and moving on. Staring at the phone while mentally wrestling to pick it up to make that next cold call. It’s having investors tell you that you’re dead wrong and, perhaps with enough customer traction, showing them the path to a new future neither of you could see at the time.

And there it was. The Lean LaunchPad was unlike any class I’d ever seen.

As a Silicon Valley entrepreneur I had lived the lean approach, yet I had never seen it taught. Done informally as part of an accelerator, yes, but not with a framework based on a clear process and clear pedagogy. The Lean LaunchPad was teaching students concepts and a process that they took away from the class and could use again for their next startup. I realized I was looking at a paradigm shift in entrepreneurial education – away from the business plan-focused model to a Lean Startup model. (The irony is that once you’ve gone through the lean cycle, you have all the information that goes in a business plan: customers, sales strategy, product features, and financial metrics. It’s just that they are validated instead of made up.)

The Business Plan is Dead
Now, 4 years after I arrived at BerkeleyHaas, we don’t teach business plan writing in any of our entrepreneurship classes or in any of our dozens of programs and competitions. We use Customer Development and the Lean LaunchPad to train and accelerate teams U.C. Berkeley-wide.

We’ve gone global as well. In the past year alone, we’ve taught over 250 teams, over 1,000 entrepreneurs and their mentors in dozens of countries how to create scalable startups in domains from software and hardware to healthcare and energy.

Haas global footprint

Haas global footprint

The international teams watch the lectures online, get out of the building, present to us each week via WebEx and get the same brand of relentless and direct feedback their U.C. Berkeley peers got in Steve’s class. For example, our Intel Technology To Market Accelerator took 22 teams from 11 countries across 15 time zones, from northern Russia to southern Chile and from Saudi Arabia to the U.S. (Chicago) through the Lean LaunchPad process. Clearly, lean works globally.

And we’ve been part of the U.S. effort to use the Lean LaunchPad to accelerate commercialization for the country’s best research spinouts from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. We do this by running classes for the NSF Innovation Corps and The I-Corps at the NIH. And the same lean techniques work just as well in the corporate innovation programs we run such as the Intel Make It Wearable Challenge.

An important distinction is that these programs are accelerators. The teams in them start with an idea or product, meet with customers, build prototypes and search for a scalable business model. All declare their startup a “go” or “no go” at the end. They learn it’s all about building to scale, pivoting or declaring failure, and moving on using a hypothesis-driven search for the truth.

Even our venerable 15-year old business plan competition, once dubbed “bplan,” has transformed into LAUNCH, a multi-month accelerator with a rigorous process combining the Lean LaunchPad, agile product development and a focus on measurable Lean Analytics. Ironically, LAUNCH has turned out to be much more rigorous than the prior business plan competition because we immerse every entrepreneur and their mentors in conquering the chaos and uncertainty that is normal for startups. We expect them to come out with specific knowledge of their markets and business ecosystem, verified metrics, a product and a plan for moving forward based on interacting with their actual customers – not honing the teams for a beauty pageant-like pitch fest or making them produce a business plan that’s fundamentally speculative. As educators, we are having a deep impact on these entrepreneurs and their startups.

Lean LaunchPad Works Across Industries
I often hear the concern that the Lean LaunchPad only works for software. After 700 teams in robotics, materials, hardware, therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices, and enterprise software, it’s clear that Lean Startup methods work across all industries. We’ve taught versions of the Lean LaunchPad for life sciences at UCSF and as part of the National Institutes of Health, for hardware-focused startups making wearable devices as part of the Intel Make It Wearable Challenge, for teams working on nanotechnology and in education (STEMKids and Build and Imagine). Two of our BerkeleyHaas Faculty, Jorge Calderon and Will Rosenzweig, created a Social Lean LaunchPad class that embraces the mission and stakeholders central to social ventures.

Whether it’s making iPhone apps or medical devices, every startup is looking for a repeatable and scalable business model. Focusing on finding customer needs, figuring out how they buy and how to scale up product delivery are universal.

Where We Are Going From Here
At U.C. Berkeley we’ve undergone a complete transformation in just four years. But the longer journey is to continue to build new lean-tools and classes separate from the 40 year-old, business plan-based tradition.

We continue to ask ourselves, “What can we do to get our students out of the classroom, in cross-functional teams, building for specific customers and having the experience of making hard decisions under conditions of uncertainty? What can we do to expand and deepen the rigor of the Lean Startup methodologies and fully elaborate our curriculum?”

At BerkeleyHaas we are sharing what we are learning (see below). By embracing lean, you can be assured you will be giving your students essential innovation skills they will use for the rest of their lives. You will see great startups focused on solving real customer problems emerge as well. This is an exciting journey and we are all right at the start.

Some resources for shifting the paradigm in your organization:

Lessons Learned

  • Early-stage investors don’t read business plans
  • We are in the middle of a shift in entrepreneurship education from teaching the waterfall model of startup development (enshrined in business plans) to teaching the lean startup model
  • The Lean LaunchPad process works across a wide range of domains – from science and engineering to healthcare, energy, government, the social sector and for corporate innovation
  • Customer Development works outside Silicon Valley. In fact, it works globally
  • The Lean LaunchPad is a business process that teaches entrepreneurs and innovators to make business-focused, evidence-based decisions under conditions of chaos and uncertainty. It’s a big idea

Life Science Startups Rising in the UK

Stephen Chambers spent 22 years in some of the most innovative companies in life science as the director of gene expression and then as a co-founder of his own company. Today he runs SynbiCITE, the UK’s synthetic biology consortium of 56 industrial partners and 19 Academic institutions located at Imperial College in London.

Stephen and SynbiCITE, just launched the world’s first Lean LaunchPad for Synthetic Biology program. Here’s his story.


Why did you come back?
This is the question I most often hear, having now returned to the UK after leaving 24 years ago to work in the US. The answer is simple. The reason I came back is the same reason I left – to be where life science startups are happening.abbey road

Hard to imagine now, but in the late ’80s the life sciences startup landscape in the UK was almost non-existent. One or two companies existed which at the time were described as startups, but in reality were government-backed small companies attempting, and ultimately failing, to execute business plans.

At that time for any life-scientist wanting to work in the commercial sector there were few, if any, jobs in the UK. Along with the rest of British industry, the pharmaceutical sector was under going massive re-organization and mergers creating much of today’s big pharma in the process. These where the Thatcher years: when we were told to  ‘get on your bike’ and many of us did.

I left the UK joining a newly formed startup, Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as one of the founding scientists. There were few alternatives then, if you wanted to work in a startup you had to go to the US. Fortunately, Vertex became one of the most successful US pharma companies in recent history. But even if it hadn’t, in the rich life-science ecosystem around Cambridge and Boston, there are plenty of other opportunities. Or you could start your own company, which I did after Vertex.

So what has changed in the UK?
Probably the biggest change was the UK government’s recognition of the importance of synthetic biology. (Synthetic biology engineers biologically based chemicals, drugs and materials.) The government designated the field as one of the UK’s Eight Great Technologies (along with advanced materials, agri-science, big data, energy storage, regenerative medicine, robotics, and satellites) that the country would focus on. The UK invested ~ £150 million in synthetic biology research and training through the Research Councils and Innovate UK.

To focus the national synthetic biology effort the UK created SynbiCITE, as the public-private partnership responsible for taking synthetic biology from the lab bench into commercial products in the UK.

And this is what has drawn me back. Looking at the UK, I saw a hotbed of startup activity, especially among companies looking to exploit the latest developments in synthetic biology.

I jumped at the opportunity to be the CEO of SynbiCITE, where I can pursue my passion of working with scientists and entrepreneurs who want to create and build something spectacular in the UK.

The Foundry
SynbiCITE provides financial aid for Proof of Concept and collaborative research, and logistical support in the form of access to a state-of-the-art ‘Foundry’ for DNA synthesis, assembly and verification.

Often the limiting step in synthetic biology innovation is the generation of the prototype, the model or the data: the Foundry seeks to bridge the critical gap between ideation and physical product in synthetic biology. Think of it as a “maker-space” specifically designed to support the commercialization of synthetic biology allowing startups to prototype new biologically based chemicals, drugs and materials.

The Foundry accelerates the translation of synthetic biology research into the marketplace. Small and medium-sized companies, startups or virtual companies can use the Foundry as a remote laboratory. We provide automated end-to-end design, construction and validation of synthetic biologic components. It is the generation of these parts, devices and systems, and the diversity of products they can produce and the range of functions they perform, which is creating the enormous excitement around this technology.

Another change in the UK, is the growing acceptance that startups are the true engines of not only economic and job growth but also the medium by which innovation most efficiently takes place. While there are still universities in the UK that would rather not have to deal with messy, cash-strapped entrepreneurs and startups most are beginning to realize that licensing doesn’t create jobs, startups do.

Lean LaunchPad to Accelerate Commercialization
The goal of our Synthetic Biology consortium is to turn our world-class scientific research into commercial products. This is why we’re excited about offering the Lean LaunchPad at SynbiCITE. Our goal is to help would-be scientist/entrepreneurs translate their ideas and research in synthetic biology into the marketplace. We want to teach them how successful startups really get built – and do it with urgency.

If you can’t see the video click here

The goal is to provide them a route from coming up with an idea for a product, through generation of business model canvas via the Lean LaunchPad program and in parallel, harness the Foundry for the production of prototypes, models and data all the while providing evidence of commercial potential.

The program gives those involved direct hands-on experience of identifying a product that the customer really needs and is prepared to buy. I want the participants in the program to have the excitement of finding their first customer, shipping that first product and in doing so learn about all the other aspects of building a successful business.  The Lean LaunchPad does that it in 12 weeks.

Going forward this initial Lean LaunchPad cohort at SynbiCITE will be the first of many. The course is the most important of all the innovation programs we are providing.

This will be the first time in the UK, scientists in the field of synthetic biology have being given the unique opportunity to learn how to become would-be entrepreneurs, by getting out of the lab, talking to potential customers and partners, and identifying what’s needed to turn science into commercial products.

Lessons Learned

  • The UK has established a national effort in Synthetic Biology
  • The Lean LaunchPad is being used to rapidly turn science into commercial products

What Do I Do Now? The Startup Lifecycle

search build growLast week I got a call from Patrick an ex-student I hadn’t heard from for 8 years. He was now the CEO of a company and wanted to talk about what he admitted was a “first world” problem. Over breakfast he got me up to date on his life since school (two non-CEO roles in startups,) but he wanted to talk about his third startup – the one he and two co-founders had started.

“We’re at 70 people, and we’ll do $40 million in revenue this year and should get to cash flow breakeven this quarter. ” It sounded like he was living the dream. I was trying to figure out why we were meeting. But then he told me all about the tough decisions, pivots and firing his best friend he had to do to get to where he was. He had been through heck and back.

“I made it this far,” he said, ”and my board agreed they’d bet on me to take it to scale. I’m going to double my headcount in the next 3 quarters. The problem is where’s the playbook? There were plenty of books for what to do as a startup, and lots of advice of what to do if I was running a large public company, but there’s nothing that describes how to deal with the issues of growing a company. I feel like I’ve just driving without a roadmap. What should I be reading/doing?”

I explained to Patrick that startups go through a series of steps before they become a large company.

In this first step, the goal of a startup is to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. It typically takes multiple iterations and pivots to find product/market fit – the match between what you’re building and who will buy it.

searchYou’ll realize you’re ready to exit the Search step when you have customer validation:

  • You’ve found a sales channel that matches how the customer wants to buy and the costs of using that channel are understood
  • Sales (and/or customer acquisition in a multi-sided market) becomes achievable by a sales force (or network effect or virality) without heroic efforts from the founders
  • Customer acquisition and activation are understood and Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) and Life Time Value (LTV) can be estimated for the next 18 months

Startups in Search mode have little process and lots of “do what it takes.” Company size is typically less than 40 people and may have been funded with a seed round and/or Series A.

Most startups die here.

At about north of 40 people a company needs to change into one that can scale by growing customers/users/payers at a rate that allows the company to:

  • achieve positive cash flow (make more money than it spends) and/or
  • generate users at a rate that can be monetized…

buildUnfortunately as you hire more people, the casual, informal “do what it takes” culture, which worked so well at less than 40 people, becomes chaotic and less effective. Now the organization needs to put in place culture, training, product management, processes and procedures, (i.e. writing the HR manual, sales comp plan, expense reports, branding guidelines, etc.)

This Build phase typically begin with around 40 employees and will last to at least 175 and in some cases up to 700 employees. Venture-backed startups will often have a Series C or D or later rounds during this phase.

In the Grow phase the company has achieved liquidity (an IPO, or has been bought or merged into a larger company event) and is growing by repeatable processes. The full suite of Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) processes and procedures are in place.

Lucky you’re not the ex-CEO
I pointed out to Patrick that he was in the middle of the transition from Search to Build. And I suggested that he was lucky to be encountering this problem as a 21st century startup rather than one a decade or two ago. In the past, when venture-funded startups told their investors they’d found a profitable business model, the first thing VC’s would do is to start looking for an “operating exec” – usually an MBA who would act as the designated “adult” and take over the transition from Search to Build. The belief then was that most founders couldn’t acquire the skills rapidly enough to steer the company through this phase. The good news is that VC firms are beginning to appreciate the value of keeping the founder in place.

I reminded Patrick that the reality is startups are inherently chaotic. As a founder he got the company to the Build phase because he was able to think creatively and independently since conditions on the ground changed so rapidly that the original well-thought-out business plan became irrelevant.

He managed chaos and uncertainty, and took action rather than waiting around for someone on his board to tell him what to do, and his decisions kept his company from dying.

Now Patrick would have to pivot himself and the company. In this Build phase he was going to have to focus on how to thoughtfully start instituting things he took for granted in the Search phase. He was going to have build into his organization training, hiring standards, sales processes and compensation programs, all the while engineering a culture that still emphasized the value of its people.

Patrick took a bunch of notes, and said, “You know when I figuring out how to search for a business model, I read the Startup Owners Manual and Business Model Generation, but where are the books for this phase? And come to think of it, in the Search phase, there are Incubators and Accelerators and even your Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps class, to give us practice. What resources are there for me to learn how to guide my company through the Build phase?”

Time to Make New Friends
I realized Patrick just hit the nail on the head. As chaotic as the Search phase was in a startup, you were never alone. There was tons of advice and resources. But in the past, the Build phase was treated like a smaller version of a large company. Operating execs hired by investors used the tools they learned in business school or larger corporations.

I suggested it was time for Patrick to consider four things:

  1. Read the sparse but available literature that did exist about this phase. For example, The Four Steps to Epiphany Chapter 6, Company Building, Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things (a series of essays) or Geoff Moore’s classic Crossing the Chasm
  2. If he already had an advisory board (formal and/or informal), add CEO’s who have been through this phase. If not, start one
  3. Get a one-one CEO coach or join a CEO peer group
  4. And potentially the most difficult, think about upgrading his board by transitioning out board members whose expertise was solely rooted in the Search

As we finished our coffees, Patrick said, “Thanks for the advice, though I wish someone had a methodology as simple as the Lean Startup for how to scale my company.”

Lessons Learned

  • Startups go from Search to Build to Scale
  • The Search to Build phase happens ~40 people
  • Very different management tools and techniques are needed to guide your company through this new phase
  • You need to reset your board and your peer advisers to people who know how to manage building a company versus starting one

It’s About Women Running Startups

Just before the holidays I had coffee with Anne, an ex MBA student running a fairly large product group at a search engine company, now out trying to raise money for her own startup. She had an interesting insight: existing content/media companies were having the same problem as hardware companies that rarely made the leap to new platforms. And she had a model for a new media company for mobile and wearables.women innovation I thought we were going to talk about her product progress, so I was a bit taken aback by her most pressing question, “Why is it so hard for a woman to still get taken seriously by a venture capitalist?”

I had lots of answers, but none of them good enough for either of us.

I had a better one when I came back from New York.

Entrepreneurship at Columbia
I was in New York last week teaching my annual 5-day version of the Lean LaunchPad class at the Columbia Business School. We had 130 students in 30 teams who got out of the classroom and did 2154 customer interviews in 5 days – a remarkable effort for 120 hours. Their amazing Lessons Learned presentations can be seen here.

In the last year entrepreneurship at Columbia has taken a pretty remarkable leap across the entire university. The Columbia Startup Lab is a visible symbol of how the university is making entrepreneurship an integral part of all colleges at the university.

New York Startups
The Columbia Startup Lab is in a building completely taken over by WeWork – a company that provides co-working spaces in 12 cities worldwide. I wandered through four full floors of SohoWest WeWork sticking my head into the random startups’ offices.

Looking at office after office of startups a few things stood out.

  • This was just one of the 14 WeWork co-working spaces in New York City— there are over 100 co-working spaces in New York
  • Michael Bloomberg has yet to get his due for engineering the New York entrepreneurial ecosystem
  • I was struck by something that had been slowly percolating through my head during my entire week – there are a higher percentage of women on the founding teams of New York City startups than in Silicon Valley

Women in New York Startups
This last point is definitely not a data-driven survey. However after spending a week teaching 130 entrepreneurship students, ~35% of them women, and then walking through ~100+ WeWork and TechSpace offices in New York, I get the impression that the number of women leading startups in New York is much higher than in the San Francisco Bay area.

When I mentioned this to my friends running the NYU and Columbia entrepreneurship programs, they looked at me like I just discovered that it gets dark at night. Their answer seemed to make sense: a higher percentage of startups in New York are focused on media, fashion, communications, real estate, financial tools – all the products of industries centered in NYC – and all are attempting to disrupt them with products that run on and are delivered by 21st century platforms. (Think of what Refinery29 is doing to Conde Nast.)

These are industries where women have had a history of leadership positions and more importantly, where young women entrepreneurs can find role models and mentors as their male counterparts do in Silicon Valley’s tech-centered, pay-it-forward culture.

This raises an interesting question: is the credibility of female entrepreneurs in the eyes of New York VC’s something about the venture firms, or is it about the industries they are funding?

One can make the case that New York venture capital industry is rooted in the 21st century not the 20th. While some venture firms have been around for awhile, perhaps the newer partners have a different model of what a successful founder looks like than their west coast peers.

Or perhaps it’s as simple as New York VC’s are funding startups that play on the disruption of New York’s key strengths in Media, Fashion, Finance and Real Estate, and the women founding New York startups have an existing track record in those industries, and pass a gender neutral “VC credibility” bar.

Correlation does not imply causation
Those bemoaning the dearth of women founders in Silicon Valley might want to see if there is a real disparity between the coasts or if it is just my selection bias?

If it’s real why?

  • Women founders already had leadership roles in the industries they’re about to disrupt?
  • Women can find existing role models?
  • Women have built a network of women mentors?

What role does the type of startup play?

  • Companies that get started and built in New York City tend to be applied technology
  • Companies that get started and built in Silicon Valley have historically focused on core technology

What role does venture capital play?

  • Is there any difference in funding women for old-line firms versus 21st century firms?
  • What role does industry segment play? (i.e. lots more women founders in media companies than you find in enterprise software companies.)
  • On the West Coast the history of successful startups is technology first, and perhaps VC’s weigh that more in what they want to see in founders.
  • Is it as simple as having credibility in the industry you want to startup in?


I sent Anne, my student, an email when I returned, “You may want to take a trip to NY and pitch some of their VCs.”

Lessons Learned

  • Lots of entrepreneurial activity in NY
  • Different industry focus than in Silicon Valley – more media, finance, real estate
  • Women seem to be more represented as founders
  • If a NY bias toward women as founders is true, why? And what are the lessons for Silicon Valley?
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